Terumah: Build me a sanctuary

Terumah: Build me a sanctuary

The Torah portion Terumah describes the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites built in the wilderness as a dwelling place for God. In Exodus 25:8, God says to Moses, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” The idea of God dwelling among the Israelites is a powerful one; the only thing more powerful is the natural follow-up that every generation of Israel must ask. How can we have God dwell among us today?

To help us, we have continued, in the spirit of the Mishkan, to build houses of worship across the centuries and around the world. From the grand synagogues in great cities, to heimish shuls in small towns, this Torah portion includes the literal and metaphorical blueprint of how to make a sanctuary that will bring God into our community. (Spoiler: It’s better to see it as bringing our community to God.)

One special component of the Mishkan is that it wasn’t just any building. It was a fancy building. After all, it was meant to be God’s home among the people. It was made of materials like gold, silver, and acacia wood. In other words, it was made of special, expensive materials. This is still a common practice in how we make a sanctuary a sanctuary, and not just a room. We make it nice, even beautiful. This is the spirit of the concept known as hiddur mitzvah, elevating a commandment. Just by looking at the outside or inside of the Mishkan, as with most sanctuaries, you could tell it was a special place, of great value to the community. It bridges the physical world with the spiritual. We live in a world that is sometimes focused on material possessions, on wealth, on physical beauty. By redirecting these values into a religious space and dedicating it to God, we move ourselves closer to God as well.

Another aspect that makes the Mishkan special is that the whole building was created by gifts from the Israelites. All those precious materials were given willingly. This means that every person of Israel, upon entering or seeing the Mishkan, felt a personal investment and individual connection to that structure, and therefore to God’s presence in their midst. We follow the same value when we construct our sacred spaces. Yes, building or renovating a synagogue will have a donation pyramid structure — but the goal always is to have everyone participate in some way. In this manner, we literally build the community into the bricks and fabric of the space.

And that of course brings us to the most powerful concept of God’s request for a structure that Adonai may dwell among the Israelites — and among us. Consider that God could have asked for a separate space, away from the mere humans. Instead, God’s house is in the center of the Israelite community, literally in the middle of the camp. The Mishkan was not just a physical structure, but a communal one. It was a place where the Israelites could gather to worship and to connect with one another. By building the Mishkan, the Israelites were creating a space where they could come together as a community, united in their shared commitment to God. This remains the primary function of a sanctuary to this day.

We live in a world that often is fragmented and divided, where we are encouraged to focus on our own individual needs and desires. And of course, we can find God anywhere, at any time, in all aspects of our lives. But we are more likely to feel a connection with the divine in the spaces we build for that purpose, our sanctuaries. The idea of God dwelling among us reminds us that we are all part of a larger community, with God as part of it as well.

Making it look and feel beautiful, involving everyone in its construction and maintenance, and the community coming together were what made the Mishkan special, and what make our synagogues special today. How is it that we can walk into a synagogue anywhere around the world and always feel that it is a special, holy place? Because every synagogue shares these qualities, and we can sense them, and sense that here is a place for God to dwell with us.

The good news is that the first two pieces usually already are in place. A structure that feels like a special, beautiful place and carries the history of the community that created and maintained it. What else is needed so that God may dwell in that space? Us. Individuals who when gathered together make a community, providing a place wherein God may dwell with us.

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